Tuesday, September 29, 2009

The Staff of Life

Baggy baguettes

I've gotten a lot of questions lately about this whole bread-baking thing I've been getting into. So I thought I would share my process for those of you who think baking bread is, like, wayyyyy too much work. Because seriously, if it was really that hard, I wouldn't do it.

First of all, if you're interested in baking your own bread but really don't know where you would find the time, or are worried about all this rising and kneading business, fear not. Just go right out and buy a copy of Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day. You can go buy it from Amazon right now. Go ahead, I'll wait.

Got it? Good.

Okay, so once you have this book in hand, you will discover that baking bread can actually be easy. And fast. And such a pleasure.

If you have baked yeast bread before (sorry, banana bread doesn't count -- it's awesome, but a totally different beast), or heard or read about it, you may have been somewhat intimidated by things like "proofing the yeast," and "a warm, dark place," and "punching down the dough," and "kneading until satiny." At least, those were the things that always kind of scared me when I would read bread recipes.

I remember trying to bake bread once in high school, and the result turning out something juuust a smidge softer than a brick. Then once in my twenties -- for a party! -- I attempted to make some Silver Palate recipe that involved yeast dough stuffed with some kind of sausage thing and baked in a bundt pan. (What was I thinking? Why do I always think a party is the perfect occasion to try something ridiculously complex and above my level??) The dough didn't rise properly and the whole thing was a disaster (although the filling was delicious and we all just picked it out and pretended all was well).

Anyway, after those two experiences, I was sufficiently humbled. I knew this bread-baking stuff was not for amateurs like me, clearly. But then I heard a snippet about Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day on The Splendid Table (one of my favoritest podcasts, second only to This American Life). It sounded so... simple. Could it be true? Could there be a way that even I could bake bread? Bread that was edible??

Oh yes. I bought the book, and read pretty much the whole thing, all the recipes, all the explanations, so I could understand the process. And then, having assembled my ingredients and memorized the basic recipe, I tried it. And have been baking bread about twice a week ever since. Sounds a little hokey to say it has changed my life, but in some ways, it really has.

Truth be told, I am a bread snob. I will frequently refuse to have a sandwich if the only available bread is some kind of soft, processed sandwich bread. I like my sandwiches on a good, dense sourdough, or on a baguette. By their very nature, these things don't keep -- you can't just have a good, fresh baguette on hand every day, especially when you try to only go to the grocery store once a week. Also, at least 50% of the recipes in my repertoire (maybe more, actually) should be served with "good bread." So I'd either be running to the bakery three times a week, or buying the "take-and-bake" artisan loaves in the freezer section... and quite frankly, spending a small fortune on bread. Good bread is $3 or $4, even at the local grocery store, let alone the good bakery. But come on, you can't have a good homemade soup without crusty bread on the side!

So, now I have bread whenever I want it, and it is some of the best bread I have ever tasted. For the full recipe and method, I'm afraid you'll have to buy the book, but here is my basic process, just to show you how easy this can all be.

Step 1: Assemble ingredients. For a basic boule dough, you'll only need four things: flour, salt, yeast, and water. Yeah, it's that simple. Can I just tell you how much I love knowing exactly what is in my bread? I buy the yeast by the jar and keep it in the fridge -- it's much more economical that way, plus I find the little packets annoying. I use unbleached all-purpose flour, kosher salt, and tap water. For me, these are all things I have around anyway, the only thing I had to go out and buy was the yeast.

European peasant dough

Step 2: Make the dough. I can now do this without looking at a recipe or really even thinking about it. I put the yeast and salt in the bowl of my stand mixer, pour in the warm-not-hot water, and stir it up a little. Then I dump in the flour cup by cup. Then, using the dough hook on my stand mixer, I stir it up. This whole process, measuring and stirring, takes about two minutes. You don't need to knead the dough with the mixer, just get all the flour incorporated into one big glob.

Dough ready to rise

Step 3: Let the dough rise. Here's where things get a little wacky. You put the big glob of dough into a big tupperware container. The container should have room for the dough to quadruple in size. Put the lid on, but not airtight, and let it sit on the counter or wherever for about two hours or so. No covering with a damp towel, no keeping it away from drafts, no searching for a "warm, damp place," wherever that may be. If you leave it longer, no sweat, it'll wait for you. I've left it for five or six hours with no apparent ill effects.

Step 4: Stick it in the fridge. Once the dough has risen (and the first time you do this, it will freak you out -- it really does quadruple in size and it is pretty dang cool), you can either bake with it right away, or put it in the fridge and use it... anytime in the next two weeks. (Hell, I once pushed it to three weeks and it was still pretty good, a little sourdough-y kind of taste.) It's like money in the bank. Every time I use up the last of my fridge-dough, I make another batch right away... I guess I've just become accustomed to the security of knowing, "I could bake bread at any moment!"

Rolls, resting

Step 5: Hmm, I think I'd like a baguette with dinner tonight.... Take dough out of fridge, and get ready for some fun. :) Dust the top of the dough with some flour to make it easier to grab a hunk of it, and take out a glob -- I use an apple-sized blog for a baguette, a bit bigger for a boule, and little plum-sized globs for rolls. Adding flour as necessary, make the glob into a ball in your hands. Now this is the only remotely tricky part of the whole operation: you need to shape the ball by pulling the dough around the sides to the bottom, then turn it 90 degrees and do it again, and keep repeating this motion until the ball has a smooth finish. I kept reading this part in the book and could not figure it out, but once you have the dough in your hands, it becomes obvious. This is really the only "kneading" you have to do, and it is actually quite lovely to have this smooth ball of dough in your hands. Anyway, if you're making a baguette you now need to roll it like you're making a play-dough snake, or if you're making a boule or roll, you're essentially done. The dough now just needs to rest a bit before going in the oven -- I put a little cornmeal or whole wheat flour on a pizza peel (one of those wooden paddles with a handle that they use in pizzerias for taking pizzas out of the oven), and set my dough on it to hang out while the oven preheats. Depending on what you're making, the dough needs to rest for 20-40 minutes usually.

Step 6: Prepare oven. First, I make sure my baking stone is relatively clean. (Note 1: You don't need a baking stone. I baked my first loaf on a regular cookie sheet with a silicone baking liner -- worked great.) (Note 2: If you do have or get a baking stone, "clean" just means you brush off the cornmeal from the last time you baked on it -- it will still be ugly and stained. Lesson learned there.) I put my baking stone on a rack that's relatively centered in the oven, and put an empty shallow baking pan on the shelf below it before preheating the oven. Then I turn it on.

Step 7: Bake. By the time the oven's preheated, the dough is done resting and is ready to go. Usually you need to slash the top of the dough -- you can get creative with this -- right before putting it in the oven. Slide it off the pizza peel directly onto the baking stone (or if you're using a cookie sheet, you can have it rest on the cookie sheet and then just put it in the oven). Now, really quick, you pour one cup of hot water into that shallow baking pan on the lower shelf, and then quickly close the oven door. That's going to create the steam that gives you a great artisan crust. Bake for the allotted time, use the pizza peel to slide the loaf out of the oven, and cool on wire cooling racks.

Peasant rolls

Ta-da! You have bread. No, not just bread... good bread. Bread that's as good as the crusty $4 loaves in the bakery of your supermarket. Bread that rivals the bread from the best bakery in your town. Bread that you didn't have to leave the house for. Bread that you get to smell while it bakes. Bread for which you know all of the ingredients. Good bread.

Now, this handy-dandy book I keep talking about has recipes for just about any yeast-based bread you can imagine. Sometimes you use the same recipe -- like the basic boule dough -- to make a bunch of different things, like baguettes, naan, pizza, etc. Or there are different dough recipes to make really different kinds of bread. I've made rye, whole wheat, brioche, even bagels. And once you have dough in your fridge on a regular basis, all kinds of things become possible. It's 6pm and you haven't thought about dinner yet? No problem! Grab some dough, roll out a pizza crust, slap on some toppings (surely you have some cheese in the house, maybe a tomato? some leftover veggies?), and stick it in the oven. You won't be so quick to call Domino's when you can have pizza that is ten times better at the drop of a hat.

It's such a simple thing -- to bake your own bread -- but for me it has meant so much. I just feel that much more connected to the meal I'm putting on the table, when even the bread on the side is my own creation. I feel that much more in control, knowing I can have my own baguette baking in the oven faster than I could get to the store and back. And for someone who does truly love bread, the experience of smelling the loaf baking in the oven, listening to it crackle on the counter as it cools... it all fills me with delight. A simple joy, a little miracle of chemistry, right in my own kitchen. Yum.

Chocolate-filled brioche

Monday, September 28, 2009

And On That Note

In honor of our National Parks, the Sierra Club is having a sweepstakes -- all you have to do is add your name to a list of "champions" who support our national parks, and you will be entered to win a trip for two to Yosemite and San Francisco!

I suppose there are people in this country who don't support our National Parks or the Sierra Club. That's always a tough one for me to get my head around, but anyhow, those who do should stand up and be counted. 'Nuff said.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

America's Best Idea

I just finished watching the first episode of Ken Burns's documentary The National Parks: America's Best Idea on PBS. First of all, gorgeous gorgeous gorgeous. I think I could look at sunset pictures of Yosemite all day long. Second of all, I am so grateful that the beauty and wonder of our national lands are being highlighted. As much as I sometimes begin to feel that America has become one long strip-mall, I am reminded of the vast areas of wildness and natural beauty that remain in this country.

We recently had a family weekend in Shenandoah National Park, camping and hiking and enjoying the incredible views from Skyline Drive.

I was so proud to be able to tell the kids, "you know who this mountain belongs to? You."

We picked up a "Passport to the National Parks" in Shenandoah, and the four-year-old spent hours poring over it and selecting places she wants to visit next. The Grand Canyon being tops on her list. Did I mention we live in Maryland? Oy. But it's an honorable goal, to want to see all the awesomeness of one's own country, so we will do our best. As Woody Guthrie said, "This land is your land," after all.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Fun Food

When my kids eat good food around the kitchen table at home, they don't just avoid the 590 calories, 26 grams of fat, and 710 grams of sodium found in my daughter's Happy Meal of choice (4 piece chicken nuggets, small fries, and chocolate milk), they also avoid this.

I go out of my way to not buy items of clothing that turn me or my kids into free billboards. I detest logos and brand names emblazoned across t-shirts... as if associating myself with a particular brand will somehow enhance my identity. By the same token, I try to be actively engaged with the marketing messages my kids are receiving. I'm not so naive as to think that I can completely censor these messages from, for example, my four-year-old's world. Despite not watching commercial television, she is still bombarded with advertising. At the bookstore, where the licensed-character-related books are prominently displayed. At the grocery store, where you can choose from a seemingly infinite variety of colorful high-fructose-corn-syrup-centered "snacks," again emblazoned with every licensed character imaginable. At Toys R Us, where the aisles are color-coded to help her find her way to the pink plastic "glam!" toys, and steer away from the obviously boys-only building toys.

Alright, that's a whole rant in and of itself, but back to the Happy Meal. What's so wrong with it? Not just its nutritional profile, not just the means of production that allow them to sell those hamburgers and chicken nuggets so cheap. It's also the passive acceptance of corporate marketing as part of the "fun" of the meal. Watch any family at McDonald's, and if the kids aren't examining the pretty box it came in, they're at least playing with the toy. Which is designed, 100% of the time, to sell them something. It's a commercial disguised as a toy.

After lots of discussions and patient explanations -- and not a few tears shed along the way -- my four-year-old now understands that those colorful boxes in the grocery store with the pretty ponies on them are not actually good for her. "That's a trick!" she'll say. "They put those pictures on there so I'll want it, but they're just tricking me because it's not even food!" She understands the game well enough to be angry about it, which I think is appropriate.

But she's still a sucker for those Happy Meals. Which is why the vast majority of the time, you'll find us at the kitchen table instead of under the golden arches. I may not have a cheap plastic toy to go with her lunch, but I can make a pretty cute bunny egg.

In the fight against the lure of cleverly-marketed bad food, I arm myself with bento. Hey, it's a start.

[My favorite bento resources on the web are Lunch in a Box, and searching for "bento" on flickr. So much inspiration! So much fun with healthy food!]

Thursday, September 17, 2009


I remember reading in history class that specialization increases as civilizations become more advanced. And on a macro level, I see the necessity of this: if we were all still engaged 24/7 with the means of our own survival, who would be our engineers? our poets? our doctors? No, of course it makes sense that, individually and collectively, we have outsourced a great many tasks in order to be freed up to pursue those tasks for which we are uniquely qualified.

But at what cost? I was raised to believe that it was my hard-earned right to outsource as much of the drudgery of housekeeping to others, freeing me to pursue the high-powered career to which I would surely aspire. But what does it mean to outsource those tasks? Okay, it's true, I really hate to clean. Thankfully, I have machines that can help with a lot of these tasks -- dishwasher, washing machine, vacuum -- and I am infinitely grateful to them. And I am so glad that few women in this country have to waste multiple days a week scrubbing laundry by hand, hand-beating rugs, etc. But aren't all these convenient appliances part of why we are such slaves to electricity now? We're like a nation of junkies who keep rationalizing our need for more juice, rather than ever question whether all that juice is really good for us or not. And what if I, as I have done in the past, hire someone else to clean my house for me? On the one hand, I am providing a livelihood for someone. In Botswana, where I was lucky enough to spend part of my childhood, it is considered the responsibility of those who are well-off to help provide a living for those who need work. I like the sentiment. But somehow I can't get over a kind of icky feeling when I pay someone else money to clean up after me.

When I was a single working mom, I was thrilled to outsource the feeding of my daughter and me to others. Whether it was those nice folks at Burger King, or the brilliant food scientists at Kraft and Stouffers, it was one less thing I had to juggle or worry about. Phew! What a load off! But oh my goodness, what is it that we were eating? Would it really have been so impossible for me to spend an hour or two a week preparing some simple, healthful recipes that I could have re-heated and re-configured throughout the week? What would I have lost (an hour or two of veg-in-front-of-the-TV time?), and what might I have gained?

There are so many things I am glad I don't have to do myself. I am grateful to the progress that has allowed me so many luxuries. But when I start to reclaim some of the tasks that I had blindly handed over to others, even in small, seemingly insignificant ways, I start to feel a groundedness, a connection to my own life and to my family, that was missing before.

Last Spring I made my four-year-old a dress out of $2 worth of fabric. She chose the pattern, she chose the fabric, and she was so delighted by the result -- even with its many irregularities. Seeing her wear that dress gives me a joy that cannot be matched by something purchased in a store.

And yesterday, I was going through the box of clothes to give away to our local thrift store, and decided the toddler needed a pair of jeans. So I repurposed an old pair of the teenager's jean shorts, cut some things out, sewed some new seams, added an elastic waist, and presto! A pair of pants, literally out of the discard pile, and they took me all of a half-hour to make. Now that's recycling.

I realize that it's quaint and fun to get to make a few items of clothing here and there for your kids, and quite another thing entirely to have no choice but to make everything your family wears or consumes. But again, getting my hands back into some of these tasks... taking a moment to be aware of how much I outsource and to whom... it has opened my eyes. We have all ceded a great deal of control over our own lives to others, and while much of that is necessary, it pays to be mindful of it.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Breakfast Reading

Over breakfast this morning, two articles zinged to my attention. Both in the Food section, what a shocker...

First up, an unscientific but quite thorough and eye-opening study a mom did to prove to her teenage son and his posse that eating fast food is both less healthful and more expensive than the same exact foods prepared at home. Even if you still eat crappy burgers and pizza and whatnot, with all the same exact fixings (including the 21 grams of mayonnaise on a Double Whopper that makes me want to hurl), those exact same foods are both healthier at home (since you can't even buy Burger King's amazing 35% fat ground beef), but will also save you significant amounts of money. So much for the "yeah, but it's cheap..." argument in favor of fast food: it will cost you both now and later! Lose lose!

Then another headline on the same page grabbed my eye: "Just Say No to Antibacterial Burgers." It turns out, we have a problem in this country with antibacterial resistant germs! And part of the problem is the constant dosing of our livestock animals with antibiotics! Which we wouldn't have to do if we would just raise our livestock animals humanely! Can I get a resounding, "Duh"??? File this under Things We Know Already and Don't Want Brought to Our Attention, Thank You. I wonder what kind of flak that reporter is going to get for pointing out such an unpleasant truth. In the Food section no less, gasp!

Monday, September 7, 2009

We're Jammin'

I made jam today. Seriously. Made. Jam. Myself! I know!

For some bizarre reason, there is a whole host of knowledge out there that I was raised to believe was a) arcane (why know how to make jam when you can buy any kind you want in the store, at any time of year?), b) somehow beneath the well-educated career woman that I would surely turn out to be. Just like, why on earth would you bother?

So there's a great deal of attitude adjustment required, as I become more and more interested in reclaiming some of these tasks. Okay, I still can't really muster up a whole lot of enthusiasm for cleaning -- vacuuming just isn't one of those homey arts I like to take pride in -- but I now can see the true value in cooking, baking, and making things (clothes, toys, etc.) for my family from scratch.

As I've learned from my recent research, one of the key ingredients to being able to eat locally (whether that's just buying food grown within a 100 mile radius, or actually growing your own food) is preserving the harvest for the long months when there *isn't* any local produce. There are myriad ways to do this, of course, from freezing to pickling to smoking, but I decided to start simple. Jam. What could be simpler than jam?

Well, truly, it is surprisingly and amazingly simple, but for some reason it has this aura of something that only grandmothers with centuries of kitchen folklore behind them could possibly get right. And of course, looming over the head of the would-be novice is the possibility of, oh, poisoning your family with improperly processed jam. But, hey, no pressure.

First, I found this extremely helpful how-to (oh, thank you, internet). And then I pored over the instructions on the inside of a box of pectin from the supermarket, and after a few days of thinking it over, decided I was ready (gulp).

Step 1: Acquire fruit. For the true preserving-the-harvest experience, we went to a pick-your-own farm and, well, picked our own. Thankfully, they had thornless blackberries, so the experience was painless and... well, quite delightful, actually. We filled a basket with blackberries, and then I had to ask the cashier to repeat himself twice because I couldn't believe how little they cost. Let's just say that those tiny little containers of blackberries you get at the grocery store are roughly ten times more expensive than the ones we had such fun picking. And, I have never, ever tasted a berry so good. It took superhuman restraint not to eat all the berries before we made it home, let alone got ready to make jam.

Step 2: Acquire other supplies, namely jars, pectin, and sugar. I got jars at the grocery store that were, in retrospect, way too big. I should have bought the adorable little half-pint jars, but instead I got 12 ounce jelly jars because they looked so retro and quaint. Oh well, lesson learned. Pectin comes in a box and costs like $2. And then I got a 5-lb bag of sugar just in case I didn't have enough in the house (turns out I didn't need it, but it won't go to waste).

Step 3: Find a really tall pot. I happen to have a stock pot that is really tall -- it may have been a lobster pot at some point, not that I've ever cooked lobster. Set that on the stove with a whole lot of hot water in it, and bring to a boil.

Step 4: Put the jars and lids in the boiling water to sterilize and to get them hot enough so the hot jam won't crack them.

Step 5: Mash the berries up. This part was quite fun and messy, and of course required assistance from my four-year-old sous chef. We ended up with not quite enough blackberries to make a half recipe of jam (hmm, I guess we nibbled a few more than I thought), so I mushed up some raspberries too. Yum.

Step 6: Cook the jam. I poured the precisely-measured crushed berries into a big saucepan and stirred in the pectin. Turned the heat to high and brought it to a "rolling boil," which happened surprisingly fast. Stirred in an insane amount of sugar -- in my case, it was 2 1/2 cups of crushed berries to 3 1/2 cups of sugar. Day-um. Anyhow, I brought it back to a rolling boil for precisely one minute, per the "Sure-Jell" instructions, and took it off the heat.

Step 7: Fish the jars out of the pot of boiling water without burning yourself (success! tongs are a lifesaver with this part), and pour the hot jam into the hot jars. Fill to within an 1/8 inch of the top, and secure the lids. I should have had the exact correct amount to fill 3 12-ounce jars, and I almost made it... my third jar had a good 3/4 of an inch of space at the top. I sealed it anyway, hoping it would still work.

Step 8: Gently lower the jars into that huge pot of boiling water you've still got going. My instructions said something about a canning rack and blah blah blah, but I just popped them into my good ole lobster pot. Boiled for precisely 10 minutes (again, per the "Sure-Jell" directions), and fished them back out with those handy tongs. Apparently one can buy "jar tongs" that are specially designed for this task, and I can see the usefulness if you were doing a lot of canning. But seriously, regular tongs and a dishtowel worked just fine.

Step 9: Allow the jars to cool, and check the tops to make sure they're sealed. Verdict: all three of mine are sealed, even the not-quite-full one! Woohoo!

The total kitchen time was maybe 45 minutes, start to finish. I wish someone had told me it was that easy! So now that I know that this is completely do-able for someone of my level of kitchen prowess, I'm eager to experiment with other kinds of preserves. It seems ridiculous to buy $5 tiny boxes of berries at the supermarket for the purposes of canning them -- the whole point is to preserve the things you have way too many of to eat. I have a lot of cucumbers coming along right now, so maybe pickles? Who knows. But the point is, I have penetrated the veil of mystery.

Tomorrow, I will spread some on some of my own home-baked bread, and contemplate just how rarely I get to eat something that I have been so fully involved in creating.